Of all the federal and state government agencies that had direct contact with the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, none had more than the U.S. State Department, acting through the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana. The embassy also had specifically-defined responsibilities with Jonestown, as it has with any group of Americans living overseas, including providing consular services, acting as a liaison in governmental affairs, and investigating reports of problems and mistreatment. As opposed to other U.S. government agencies or private citizens – which, for example, Rep. Leo Ryan had the status of as soon as he arrived in Guyana – U.S. Embassy officials were the only Americans who had legal authority to enter Jonestown without first obtaining permission.
Because of this relationship, the U.S. State Department came under more scrutiny – and criticism – than any other agency following the deaths in Jonestown. State responded by appointing two retired Foreign Service Officers to assess its own performance. Published in May 1979, “The Performance of the Department of State and the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana in the People’s Temple Case,” or the “Crimmins Report,” as it came to be known, found that the State Department knew all the “critical aspects” of the Peoples Temple controversy, but that both the department and the Embassy failed to use the information “as well as they could and should have.”
The Performance of the Department of State and the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana in the People’s Temple Case (The Crimmins Report), U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., May, 1979. Obtained from California Historical Society, MS 3802, Moore Family Papers.
An analysis of the Crimmins report, adapted from A Sympathetic History of Peoples Temple and Jonestown by Rebecca Moore, appears below. The full text of the chapter from which the analysis was taken appears here.
The U.S. government agency which had the most direct contact with Peoples Temple once the group left the United States was the State Department. By June 1978, State had over 912 documents on Peoples Temple, according to Richard McCoy, Consul for the American Embassy in Georgetown. Most of the documents were letters and complaints from members of the Concerned Relatives and from Peoples Temple. When McCoy returned to Washington in May 1978, he briefed department officials extensively about Jonestown. He related Debbie Blakey’s concerns and fears, which she’d communicated to him as he escorted her back to the U.S. As criticism of State mounted after the massacre, the department responded by claiming it had devoted more time to Peoples Temple in the previous eighteen months than to any other group of American citizens living abroad. In that case, critics wondered, why didn’t State warn Ryan of the potential for violence, or predict the mass suicides?
The Crimmins Report studied two main areas of State Department involvement. The first covered the relationship between the Temple and the Concerned Relatives. Both the department in Washington and the Embassy in Georgetown viewed the conflict between the two – particularly the dispute over the custody of John Victor Stoen – as a fight between two groups of Americans. As the representative of all Americans in Guyana, the Embassy was supposed to remain neutral, although the report concluded “there was a ‘tilt’ towards the Stoens’ position in early official actions.”
The second area of State Department responsibility in regard to Peoples Temple encompassed the preparation and handling of Leo Ryan’s visit to Jonestown. In this respect, the area of highest public criticism, the Crimmins Report felt “the briefings for the Congressional visit were quite thorough in content and scope.” Ryan’s aides disagreed. They pointed out that the State Department made very few, if any, cables or documents available to them. Additionally, department and Embassy officials did not warn Ryan of the possibility of violence. The report explained that “there was nothing in their dealings with Jonestown to warrant such a caution.”
State and Embassy officials had difficulty judging accusations from the Concerned Relatives and from Peoples Temple, because both sides exaggerated. For Richard McCoy, the Concerned Relatives had a “credibility problem, since many of their claims were untrue.” McCoy frequently interviewed people who were supposedly being held against their will in Jonestown. Time and again, people told him they remained in Jonestown voluntarily. And, he added, they did not appear to be in fear and under pressure. The evidence he saw in Jonestown belied the allegations of the Concerned Relatives.
This may explain why McCoy and others at the State Department did not take the Temple’s suicide threats seriously, and why they discounted the Concerned Relatives. Although Temple members announced they would die before giving up John Victor Stoen, and although Blakey personally told McCoy, and later the department by affidavit, about suicide rehearsals, the State Department believed in neither.
Leo Ryan possessed largely the same information the State Department had. While State ignored warnings provided by Concerned Relatives, Ryan did not. At the same time, State knew that the Concerned Relatives would inflame the Temple against the Congressman. The Crimmins Report noted that:
The record does demonstrate that Congressman Ryan and his staff members were clearly advised that the presence of concerned relatives might cause friction with Jonestown about access.
The Crimmins Report really doesn’t analyze why the State Department ignored the suicide threats. In fact, its omissions reveal more than its contents. For example, the report never mentions the Guyana Desk Officer by name. Although Frank Tumminia held the post until July 1978 and should have been a key contact in the department, the report fails to study his role in any depth. And even though the document states that Embassy relations with Peoples Temple “declined” with the arrival of Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer in May 1978, it doesn’t explain why. The Crimmins Report does not mention the awareness the Embassy had of the content of Temple radio communications. It doesn’t mention the Embassy’s additional intelligence about the church’s contacts with foreign governments. Finally, the Crimmins Report does not discuss the actions of Embassy officers on November 18.
Instead of answering some of the questions these issues raised, John Hugh Crimmins and Stanley S. Carpenter, authors of the report, attacked both the Freedom of Information and the Privacy Acts. They recommended “the necessity and practicality of seeking amendment to the two statutes.” These statutory “constraints,” coupled with First Amendment protection of freedom of religion, obliged the State Department and the Embassy
to follow a cautious policy that stressed impartiality, objectivity, accuracy, adherence to strict legality, and insistence on hard evidence as the only basis for action …
Concern about the FOIA and the provisions of the Privacy Act permitting access by an individual to government files about himself reduced Embassy reporting and led to an emphasis on the purely factual at the expense of the speculative and analytical.
In May 1979, a few weeks after publication of the Crimmins Report, Richard Dwyer echoed the report when he said that restrictions of the Privacy Act prevented the Embassy from doing more. But if Embassy officials knew, or suspected, something was wrong in Jonestown, neither the Privacy Act nor the Freedom of Information Act nor the First Amendment prevented them from acting responsibly.
In fact, Ambassador Burke understood his responsibility when he sent a cable to the State Department in June 1978, requesting authorization to approach the Guyana government about Jonestown. “Because of the importance of the telegram to the Ambassador,” said the Crimmins Report, “the Ambassador, by telephone, called it to the attention of the Desk Officer for Guyana requesting that it receive careful consideration.” The Desk Officer, Frank Tumminia, did not remember Burke’s call.
In spite of Burke’s concern, and in spite of the fact that several officials in the department knew what the ambassador meant – including recently-returned Consul Richard McCoy –
No one was quite sure what the Embassy was driving at … The Director of SCS [the Office of Special Consular Service] … questioned the necessity of the action for which the Embassy was requesting authority on the grounds that the approach should not be undertaken unless there were evidence of lawlessness. The Chief of the Division questioned the propriety of the approach since the area was under the control of the Guyanese Government and there might be a charge of interference …
The Desk Officer for Guyana [Frank Tumminia] did have a better grasp of the Embassy’s purpose … In his opinion, the Embassy was asking: what action can we take? With these thoughts in his own mind, the Desk Officer told SCS that prompt action was needed. There is no evidence, however, that he transmitted his opinions to SCS or inquired about the SCS understanding of the telegram. Moreover, he took no exception to the Department’s reply even though perturbed by the failure of SCS to clear it with him before dispatch.
The State Department responded by telling the Embassy that any approach to the Guyana government could be construed as interference by the U.S. government. Unless evidence of lawlessness surfaced, or unless American citizens requested assistance, the Embassy could do nothing.
Both the ambassador’s cable and the department’s response were remarkable. In light of the Embassy’s diplomatic note to the Government of Guyana concerning the Stoen custody case, Burke’s request seemed moderate.
In 1981, Richard McCoy said that the State Department “fully understood” Burke’s telegram. “The people who received that telegram had been personally briefed by me regarding Jonestown for several hours, three and a half weeks before that telegram was sent. They knew all about it here.” If, for some reason, they forgot McCoy’s briefing, or failed to read the massive files already available on Peoples Temple, or if they truly did not understand the ambassador’s vaguely-worded message, “all they had to do was ask.”
Since everyone at State knew, or had the opportunity to find out, what the cable meant, Ambassador Burke did not pursue the matter when he made a personal visit to Washington, D.C. the very next month. The Crimmins Report only notes that Burke did not discuss the telegram with anyone at State during his month-long visit. Again, it does not explain why.
McCoy, who became the Guyana Desk Officer in August 1978, blamed his predecessor for “mishandling” Burke’s cable. The people who had the most information about Jonestown were “low-level people … somewhat inexperienced.” They lacked the power to convey the true picture to people who could make political decisions. Embassy staff also felt that department officials in Washington did not want to get involved in anything controversial.
Burke sent a second telegram in September, when he learned of Ryan’s impending visit. His September 26 cable asked the Caribbean Area Director to “review” the June exchange carefully. Since the director remembered the “tenor” of the exchange, he did not actually look at the telegrams.
Ambassador Burke received the major part of what little blame the Crimmins Report assigned. McCoy said that the report’s authors sincerely believed that an ambassador had the primary responsibility for Embassy activities. If Burke felt strongly about Jonestown, they reasoned, he should have protested State’s inaction on his request to approach the Guyana government. He did not.
Burke himself was stung by the criticism. After the report came out, he wrote to State’s legal advisor “reiterating my position that the Embassy took appropriate steps” regarding Jonestown. Efforts to obtain a copy of this letter, which isn’t classified, were not successful.